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Alhurra to Al Youm:
The Maturation of U.S. Television Broadcasting in the Middle East

Nancy Snow, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy, Newhouse School
Faculty Affiliate, Middle East Studies Program
Syracuse University

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Alhurra Television is the most recognized and criticized brand of the family of U.S. nonmilitary international broadcasting services.[i]  Alhurra (or Al Hurra) is part of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) that emerged, along with Radio Sawa, in the post-9/11 era.  Alhurra launched in 2004, less than a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Its reputation and credibility have been tied directly to the successes and failures of the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009).  In 2008, a new administration was elected with a Democrat who promised to lift the reputation of the United States in the world, specifically in the Middle East among Arab and Muslim populations. 

Less than two months after Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as president, Alhurra launched its most ambitious program to date, “Al Youm,” Arabic for “Today.”  A groundbreaking three-hour prime time evening program, “Al Youm” is changing not only the reputation of Alhurra in the Middle East, but also the face of television journalism.  The maturation of U.S. television broadcasting is underway.  This case study examines the history of Alhurra from the Bush years of 2004-2009 through Obama’s first year of 2009.  “Al Youm” is used as a centerpiece of this Alhurra case study to illustrate the power of both the Obama effect and quality TV programming to move forward the U.S. credibility needle in the Middle East.  

A Network is Born

On February 14, 2004, the U.S. government launched a commercial-free 24-hour Arabic language satellite broadcasting television network called Alhurra (Al Hurra), translated from the Arabic as “The Free” or “The Free One.”[ii]  The timing of the launch could not be more critical for U.S. strategic interests in the region and more subject to criticism from the Middle East target audience.  It was less than a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003.  Although major combat operations had ceased on May 1, 2003, the U.S. occupation of Iraq proceeded, and the need to tell America’s side of the story there, as well as throughout the region, was crucial to the U.S.-led War on Terrorism. 

Alhurra Television did not develop in direct response to the war in Iraq, much less the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.  The U.S. government had determined long before the 21st century that the United States needed a louder voice in the Middle East region, one that could overcome the proliferating satellite media like the popular regional network, Al Jazeera Television, which produced a lot of footage that was counter to enhancing the image of the United States.  Al Jazeera launched in Doha, Qatar, in 1996 and spawned competition from a slew of Arabic-language satellite channels, most notably Al Arabiya Television.  These networks, not unlike U.S. network television, told stories with a recognized nationalist perspective; in the case of Arab-language media, they reflected the interests and concerns of the audience.  By definition, this meant that at times the stories were perceived as anti-American and anti-Israeli in tone and scope to U.S. leaders, especially coverage by Al Jazeera, which had come under considerable criticism by the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of September 11 (9/11). 

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regularly denounced Al Jazeera as a pro-terrorist network for its decision to air every video of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and represent the Taliban perspective in Afghanistan.[iii]  In his 2004 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush referred to the network as promoting “hateful propaganda” in the Arab world.[iv]  Despite these repeated criticisms, or perhaps because of them, Al Jazeera’s popularity increased and in 2005 the network announced its intention to launch an international English-language channel, Al Jazeera English (AJE).  A recent profile of AJE or “English,” as it is known among its staff, shows a network that is becoming a global competitor to BBC World and CNN International.  The network has interviewed U.S. General Stanley McChrystal about Afghanistan policy at the request of the Defense Department, not the other way around.  After this interview, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office came calling.[v]  AJE is still here, while Rumsfeld and the Bush administration are long gone.  But the concern about telling America’s story and promoting American values in the Middle East persists, even in the Obama administration.  To counterbalance the pro-Arab media growth in the last decade and a half, a U.S. strategic communication response was inevitable.  Enter a media visionary. 

Alhurra was the brainchild of Norman Pattiz, who also created its “sister” radio predecessor, Radio Sawa (Arabic for “Together”), which was launched in 2002. An outspoken advocate for free and U.S.-friendly media in the Middle East, Pattiz remains today a very successful commercial broadcasting executive and founder of radio giant Westwood One, based in Culver City, California.  During the Bush administration, Pattiz, a prominent Democratic Party contributor, was chair of the Middle East Committee at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  The BBG ( is the bipartisan oversight board that is responsible for all nonmilitary U.S.-sponsored international media, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Marti in Cuba, and Radio Free Asia.  Its nine board members consist of four Republicans, four Democrats, and the secretary of state as an ex officio member. The BBG’s mission is “to promote and sustain freedom and democracy by broadcasting accurate and objective news and information about America and the world to audiences overseas.”[vi]  In that spirit, the BBG created the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra and Radio Sawa) after September 11, 2001, to replace the Arabic language Voice of America in the region.  The decision was based on potential reach.  In 2001, the U.S. official voice in the region was a sparse weekly audience of two million adult Arabic language radio listeners.  By 2009, Sawa and Alhurra had a combined unduplicated weekly audience of more than 35 million Arab adults, with 80 percent of that audience originating from four countries: Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Morocco.[vii] 

The Alhurra Paradox

Pattiz viewed these new Middle East broadcasting networks as essential to winning hearts and minds “in the face of radical Islamic fundamentalism in the war on terror.”[viii]  He did not think that these U.S. networks would win over an audience in the short term, given very negative Arab reception to U.S. policies in the region, including the strong alliance with the government of Israel.  Alhurra would have an advantage—non-commercial 24/7 TV broadcasting—but also a disadvantage—U.S. government sponsorship.  The proverbial “Arab Street” (Arab public opinion) has historically been conditioned to state-sponsored media that tilt coverage in favor of the authoritarian regimes in power, but this same audience is naturally suspicious of any government-sponsored media in regards to accuracy and breadth of coverage.  U.S.-sponsored media in the region would be even more suspect than the “usual suspects,” indigenous Arab language media. 

Al Jazeera’s name means “The Island” or “The Peninsula” in Arabic, which refers to its independent news status in the region.  Though funded by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, Al Jazeera’s programming pits opposing points of views against one another, and holds onto its “contextually objective” news status in the eyes of many viewers.[ix]  It remains the most popular Arab language television network 13 years after its launch on November 1, 1996.[x]  Al Jazeera’s political independence status vis-à-vis Alhurra did not go unnoticed by many media commentators.  As Salon writer Anthony York pointed out before Alhurra’s official launch: “There’s a paradox in its founding: Just as viewers in Arab countries are turning away from state-run programming and embracing independent networks like Al-Jazeera, the U.S. is trying to compete with what is essentially state-run programming, only run by the U.S., not an Arab government.”[xi] 

Early media and public opinion reaction to Alhurra was decidedly critical, as illustrated by a March 9, 2004, essay by this author for O’Dwyer’s PR Daily, republished on Common Dreams and other global media Web sites:

Al Hurra-Al Who?: Haven’t heard? We’re Free, They’re Not!

Some three weeks ago the United States sent out a broadcast signal version of a   Valentine’s Day greeting card to win Arab hearts and minds. No Hallmark sentimentality like, ‘I’m thinking of you,’ but rather this greeting came in the form   of a U.S. Government-funded Arabic language network with the very     propagandistic moniker of “The Free One.” 

Al Hurra’s free press mandate is to challenge what the U.S. Administration and    the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees international    broadcasting, perceive as the hate media in the Arab region. In particular, Al   Hurra offers a U.S. response to the barrage of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel stories and    sensationalized imagery coming from the more popular networks of Al-Jazeera     and Al-Arabiya.

President Bush says that Al Hurra will help combat “the hateful propaganda that   fills the airwaves in the Muslim world and tell people the truth about the values     and policies of the United States.” It seems to be doing so from a safe distance. Al    Hurra is based, not in the Middle East, but in northern Virginia, U.S.A.

While you might think that eyeballs would be glued to the U.S.-declared truthful alternative, so far no one is fully embracing the “free one” version, despite   financing of $62 million in congressional funding for the first year alone.

A quick review of some of the global media reaction spells trouble for Al Hurra.   Arab newspaper editorials have been universally thumbs down on the new     broadcast alternative, with the not unexpected negative reaction of “it’s all     American propaganda, anyway.” The Cairo Times said that many Egyptians   remain “guarded” in their reaction and are suspicious of the new station’s     propagandistic potential to shape news from a pro-U.S., pro-Israeli governmental      perspective. The most prestigious Arabic-language newspaper, Al Ahram, said “It is difficult to understand how the U.S., with its advanced research centers and   clever minds, explains away Arab hatred as a product of a demagogic media and   not due to its biased policies and propensity to abuse Arab interests.”

Arab News, the Middle East’s leading English daily, reports a “cool reception” to     Al Hurra, which some viewers see as “short on credibility and long on   arrogance.” Ouch! Not the long and the short of it you want.

The former minister of information in Kuwait, Dr. Saad Al Ajmi, reports a mixed review. In a special to the Gulf News, he says, “There is most certainly a vacuum     for it [Al Hurra] to fill. Before Al Hurra, America had no satellite television voice     in the Arab world Al Hurra is playing catch up, and it remains to be seen if it will   be successful.”

CNN did dominate the Arab airwaves in the early 1990s but this was during the   last war in the Gulf and before Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya came along to     challenge this English-language global media station that was accessible to only     English-speaking elites in the region.

What remains to be seen is if those who initially condemn the network will find    curiosity getting the best of them and sneak a peek, if nothing else, to see if Al   Hurra offers anything new and different in both content and production value.

Against a backdrop of anti-Americanism and an unfinished roadmap to peace in   the Middle East, it’s doubtful that many hearts and minds will be won for now. The U.S. just doesn't have the freedom credibility it wants to project to the Middle   East. Just calling a network free doesn’t make it so, especially one tied so closely    to the U.S. government.

Telling to some Arab viewers was that President Bush was the first guest   interviewed on Al Hurra. Al Quds Al Arabi, a newspaper generally critical of the   U.S., said that the Bush interview “brought to mind official channels broadcast by    regimes mired in dictatorship, just like those of the 1960s and beginning of the    `70s.”

The greatest hurdle to overcome seems to be in the naming of the station itself. To    many, if Al Hurra represents “the free ones” then that makes “us” the unfree ones.    This magic bullet theory of communication assumes that the sender’s need for    more free speech and more accurate information about itself in a region coincides      with the receiver’s needs. But many naysayers to Al Hurra say that the U.S. still   “just doesn’t get it” about what the Arab audience true needs are.

One magazine writer, Amy Moufai, told an NBC News producer in Cairo that she    hadn’t watched the new U.S. network, but was “very surprised they would choose a name like that which highlights the fact they don’t know what they are doing in   the Middle East. It reeks of the whole notion of a white man’s bread. ‘Let us teach   you our free ways.’”

The United States, “the big one,” tends to associate better communication with    more information. If we can just get our message out there, make it louder, make     it stronger, make it bolder, then we’ll be well on our way to repairing    miscommunication problems. But just maybe what is sought is more    respectability and acknowledgment that U.S. geopolitical and economic interests     in the region don’t often match up to how the Arab people perceive freedom,   particularly from despotic government intervention.

A government-led free press is a harsh reminder of a region dominated by unfree   governments. And no slick slogans or pretty newsroom sets are going to    overcome those realities.

Norman Pattiz and Middle East Broadcasting president Brian Conniff defend Alhurra as a voice in the Arab Middle East, not the voice.  They do not see the U.S.-sponsored media in the Arab Middle East as trying to compete with Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, or any other popular Arab language media, but rather showing up in the news mix.  Conniff said that a common misperception about Alhurra’s existence is that it was created as a direct reaction to Al Jazeera’s influence and seeks to go head-to-head with this most popular Arab network.  Alhurra will never be able to compete with Al Jazeera, says Conniff, and this is not its primary function.[xii]  Presenting a free and independent news service in the interest of America’s long-term goals in the region is Alhurra and Radio Sawa’s purpose.  As Pattiz explained in 2005, “…the issue for Sawa and Alhurra is not whether Arabs use them for news first but whether they use them for news at all. And they do.  Arab audiences, like people everywhere, typically consult multiple sources for news and information. By regularly reaching unprecedented numbers of Arabs with accurate and balanced reporting, current affairs programs, debates, roundtables, interviews with U.S. policymakers, and much more, Sawa and Alhurra are making a vital contribution to long-term U.S. foreign policy goals of promoting freedom and democracy in the region. For, without an informed citizenry, there is no chance for democracy.”[xiii]

Alhurra and U.S. Public Diplomacy

Pattiz explains that Alhurra serves the goals and objectives of U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East through exemplifying quality journalism, which the Broadcasting Board of Governors must monitor.  Many public diplomacy programs seek influence through advocacy. Our influence, like that of any professional journalistic enterprise, resides in the quality of our news reporting, current affairs shows, and features programming. Information constitutes power and influence everywhere in the world. But in societies that suppress information, as do all countries in the Middle East to one degree or another, accurate and objective news and information are especially powerful and influential.”[xiv]  Credibility questions remain about the BBG generally and Alhurra specifically as a U.S.-sponsored global media.  As one member of Congress said at an October 2009 hearing of the International Operations and Organization Subcommittee: “The BBG must demonstrate that it primarily serves the interest of the United States citizen, and, consequently, justifies the $682 million budget. At the same time, however, the BBG needs to cultivate a reputation for quality journalism. Foreign audiences will clearly reject broadcasts that they perceive as political propaganda. It is not an easy task to fulfill both of these requirements and to do so simultaneously.”[xv] 

According to BBG board member Joaquin F. Blaya, Alhurra Iraq has been a resounding success as the fourth-leading television channel preferred by Iraqi adults among hundreds of choices, with a 32 percent daily and 64 percent weekly viewership.  At the October 2009 hearing, Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE) asked Blaya about how BBG maintains journalistic integrity.

SEN. KAUFMAN: Can you spend a few minutes and just talk about how you maintain broadcasting quality?

MR. BLAYA: Senator, I know this was, while you were at the BBG, always one of your main concerns. And you were the first person that described to me how it is that this was done. So I have it in front of me, and I will go in details because of the importance that you’ve always placed on it.

First of all, the U.S. was the first country that broadcast in the languages of the audiences that it wanted to reach, versus a BBC -- you know, that was all in English.

Secondly, it was essential that we have the native language capabilities, and that means that up through the management chain, the regional division directors and editors, they all speak the native language.

The second point was the editorial controls and guidance, which were established years ago. We rely on the expertise and judgment of language service heads and line editors to ensure that the news met the highest standards of professional journalism.

Third, we have a performance review process which includes independent audience market research. We undergo rigorous annual review performed by an office separate from the language service itself.

This review incorporates a wide range of research inputs by BBG global research programs.

Fourth, we have specific program evaluations. We commission, when circumstances warrant, leading schools of journalism, as we have recently done with Missouri and Washington University and other expert bodies, to conduct specific, in-depth programming evaluations.[xvi]

Despite Blaya’s glowing assessment of Alhurra’s reach and quality control of its programming and a supportive Congress, U.S. media reports, particularly from ProPublica’s ( reporter Dafna Linzer, have not always drawn the same sanguine conclusions about America’s international broadcasting efforts.  Linzer, a former foreign affairs correspondent for The Washington Post, reports that Alhurra’s funding may be growing, but the Arab language audience does not match that growth. A University of Maryland and Zogby International annual poll of Arab public opinion in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates noted that in 2008 Alhurra’s preference among viewers paled in comparison (2 percent) to the dominance of Al Jazeera (50 percent +).  Alhurra’s management prefers to count audience reach of more than 26 million viewers per week to an audience preference for Al Jazeera.  Further, the poll does not measure viewership in Iraq where Alhurra Iraq has been preferred as the fourth or fifth most popular Arab-language TV network in the last two years.  Linzer’s investigative assessment of Alhurra and the BBG is important in helping American citizens draw their own conclusions about the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of U.S.-taxpayer supported international broadcasting. 


Linzer’s series of articles in 2008 and 2009 for the independent news site ProPublica reflect an international broadcasting environment battling woes on many fronts: employee dissatisfaction and mixed reviews from outside evaluators, despite an uptick in its funding.  A July 2008 evaluation by the University of Southern California was deemed so critical of Alhurra and the BBG that its conclusions were embargoed for several months until public pressure led to its release. The chair of the report was Dean Ernest J. Wilson III of the Annenberg School, who led President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team on international broadcasting.  An anonymous consultant who worked with USC on the report said, “The BBG was incredibly resistant to making any changes on Alhurra.  I don’t know what it will look like a year from now but no one on the transition team thought it was working.”[xvii]  The July 2008 USC study by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School addressed the challenges faced by Alhurra that are important to any journalistic operation:

Section 303 of the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 (as amended) calls for,    among other provisions, United States international broadcasting to “be conducted      in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism”     and “to be designed so as to effectively reach a significant audience.”  These     broad requirements coincides with the more specific standards prescribed by the   MBN code of ethics.

Within this framework, the challenges facing Alhurra as it seeks to attain   excellence in carrying out its mandate are those that must be addressed by all     news organizations:

·  Ensuring comprehensiveness of coverage; providing the breadth that the audience expects. 

·  Imposing discipline in producing the news product to protect against personal and institutional biases that can infect a news product.

·  Offering diverse viewpoints about important issues from sources whose backgrounds and expertise contribute to a balanced news product.

·  Avoiding rumor and other unsubstantiated material.

·  Thoughtfully and thoroughly addressing the topics of greatest interest to the target audience, such as religion and local democratization efforts. 

Add to these Alhurra’s additional duty to reflect and promote U.S. policies and it    is clear that the task for this news organization is exceptionally difficult.[xviii]  (author emphasis)

USC’s study employed a two-pronged methodology: content analysis of all Alhurra news and topical programming in November 2007 followed by focus group analysis among experts (Arab media professionals and academics) in Beirut, Cairo, and Dubai. The focus groups considered Alhurra’s programming to be too pro-United States or pro-West and anti-Arab when personal opinions were shared, and full of bias and propaganda messages, most notably about U.S. policies toward Iraq and Israel.[xix]  Alhurra news programming was more likely to promote Western and American perspectives at the expense of Arab perspectives. 

A study by Kent S. Collins, chairman of the Radio-Television Journalism faculty at the University of Missouri, reached more favorable conclusions about Alhurra.  It concluded that “Despite recent criticism in the American media and politically biased criticism in the Middle East, Alhurra Television does most things right most of the time.[xx] The study acknowledged the need for more in-depth training and editorial vigilance at Alhurra since many Middle East and Arab journalists come from a media environment steeped in the perspectives of the authoritarian regimes that sponsor those media, but it ended its report on a high note:

Alhurra, thus, has a competitive opportunity unlike any other television operation serving the Middle East. If Alhurra can transition its correspondents,   videographers, editors and producers into the American tradition (as best   described as the ‘elements of journalism’), then Alhurra will have a significant     competitive advantage over Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the many other television news operations in the region.[xxi]

Alhurra Television’s fast-track development is unrivaled in American television history. Never before has so much been done so fast: Funding the operation, establishing operations centers in the U.S. and in the Middle East, hiring   personnel (difficult-to-recruit key personnel being Arabic speakers with    significant journalism credentials) securing vendors of complicated technologies   and creating systems and policies. This has been a daunting task, well managed to    this point—despite the need for more editorial control.

Clearly, journalism everywhere is subject to criticism and second-guessing and political influence. Compare the current critique of the American media in the coverage of the domestic presidential campaign to the more complicated political, ethnic, religious and nationalistic environment in which Alhurra operates.

That said, Alhurra Television must now take two big steps: radically improve editorial control to eliminate bias and imbalance in coverage, and teach staff the   best practices in television news storytelling and production.[xxii]

These two reports were quite clear that Alhurra’s durability depended on its ability to provide original quality programming with content that mattered to its viewership.  The American people may be funding such programming, but not directing its content.  Only quality content would matter to Alhurra’s audience, which seems to be the rationale behind the launch of a potentially risky program.  Unlike much of network news television that is prerecorded, “Al Youm” is live and operates simultaneously in five news bureaus.  If successful, the payoff was great: “Al Youm” would become the cornerstone of Alhurra. 

A Network Matures: Alhurra to “Al Youm”

Alhurra was launched on February 14, 2004.  Five years and a month later on March 8, 2009, Alhurra launched its groundbreaking news program, “Al Youm” (Arabic for Today), based on the successful American network morning program, NBC’s “The Today Show.”  Although the American model broadcasts in the morning, “Al Youm” originates its three-hour live daily broadcast from five countries on three continents during the prime time viewing hours of the evening.

In order to assess audience reception to “Al Youm’s” 2009 launch, sample media coverage of “Al Youm” was provided by the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), which oversees “Al Youm” and Alhurra.  In addition, the author conducted an independent survey of online news stories about “Al Youm” in its first ten months of operation.  The response has been overwhelming positive and a marked contrast to the negative coverage that had dominated the media landscape about Alhurra from 2004-2008. 

Based on a content analysis of these news media stories, and supplemented by several interviews (person-to-person and email) with “Al Youm” staff and management, Alhurra’s image in 2009 improved from that of the original tagline of “controversial” U.S.-sponsored Arab language satellite television network.  The positive reception to “Al Youm” has helped to shepherd in a rebranding opportunity for Alhurra from the Bush administration-era image of a U.S. propaganda network in the service of the War on Terror to the Obama administration-era image of a U.S.-sponsored independent media.  With “Al Youm” as its centerpiece, Alhurra’s brand image as an alternative news source in the Middle East can vastly improve. 

Several features of “Al Youm” make it appealing to the Middle East viewer:  (1) “Al Youm” is not a typical political hard news program that emphasizes dramatic images and conflict situations.  It is a hybrid style of news programming that offers breaking news, soft news, finance, education, science, and other topical subjects that appeal to the region.  (2) It is an unprecedented groundbreaking program.  Never in the history of television news has a live program originated from five bureaus (Beirut, Cairo, Dubai, Jerusalem, Washington, D.C.) across three continents.  (3) “Al Youm,” like “The Today Show” in America, is personality-driven.  It has the potential to grow its audience around the popular anchors and correspondents who are regularly featured.  (4) “Al Youm” has extremely high production values, with an award-winning executive producer who successfully managed similar live programming on American networks. 

Mona Wehbe, one of the Dubai-based anchors, told Arabian Woman magazine before the program launched that the objective of “Al Youm” is “a comprehensive show that addresses all the issues that concern people, whether cultural, political, social or health.  It’ll cover a wide range of subjects such as the latest technology, sports in the Middle East and the world.  We are not targeting any particular age group as we are formulating it to be suitable for everyone.”[xxiii]  

Interview with “Al Youm” Executive Producer

Every successful television program has quality staff behind its product.  The key to a successful news program, whether it’s the “Today Show” or “Al Youm,” is its executive producer.  I sat down with Fran Mires, executive producer of Al Youm, for a two-hour interview on Monday, November 30, 2009, at the headquarters of Alhurra in Springfield, Virginia.  What emerged from this meeting was a sense that professional journalism and favorable timing have the ability to trump charges of bias and imbalance. 

I shared with Mires that I come to public diplomacy with a long association, mostly in the area of cultural and educational exchanges as a Fulbright Scholar and as a cultural affairs specialist.  From 1992-1994 I worked at the agency responsible for U.S. public diplomacy management, the U.S. Information Agency, and came away with a strong conviction that anything the U.S. government does through sponsored international communication has the potential to be seen as a propaganda tool of that government.  Every government knows this, but perhaps the U.S. government and its concomitant status as a military, cultural, and (perhaps until recently) economic superpower knows this more than many others.  In that context, I wondered if a network like Alhurra could truly succeed in a region where U.S. government sponsorship of anything is suspect. 

Mires acknowledged that it’s completely understandable that people have the perception that Alhurra is propaganda.  Consider the Mideast media landscape of government-controlled media.  In the Middle East, the government also owns the editorial content of the stations that are funded by the government.  The employees of these stations are told by the government what to air and what to print.  Stories are “killed” on a regular basis if they don’t meet the statist needs of the station funders.  As Mires says, “these are controlled media.”[xxiv]  As a result, the 350 million people in the region are used to wondering if what they are reading and seeing is true or not true.  When Alhurra got into the mix with other Middle East-based media in 2004, the response was it must be another propaganda media operation.  The perception is real and it’s a perception that the network Alhurra, says Mires, has to fight.  But as executive producer of “Al Youm,” Mires doesn’t worry about the perception battles of Alhurra.  She focuses on producing the best quality live television that she can.  Mires approaches “Al Youm” as an independent veteran television producer with a successful background in Spanish-language international programming for the Telemundo Network.  She also produced the news magazine show “Real Life” for NBC.  Mires is not a Middle East expert, but an expert in international programming.  She earned a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University in 1987.  Her philosophy of journalism is simple.  She tells her 130 staff members in five countries that the “Al Youm” objective is “one-on-one journalism.”  It’s a journalistic principles concept: “If they all just stick with the facts, then we’re all going to be okay.  Who, what, when, where, and why.”  Although Alhurra tried to find a regional expert to run “Al Youm,” they couldn’t find anyone who had Mires’ credentials in producing successful television magazine programs.  “The perfect me would have been an Arabic me.”  Despite her initial lack of Middle East credentials, Mires says that she simply switched her successful production formula on Hispanic Television to Arabic Television.

It took nine trips during a period of 16 months to find the top staff that she considers crucial to quality programming.  She personally interviewed every one of the 130 staff members, “from the cameraman to the anchor,” an unusual and timely employment process, but one which Mires considered mandatory to a successful rollout of “Al Youm.” “At the end of the day, it’s your skill.  The 130 in five countries is what the show is all about.  They are very educated, fabulous journalists.”  Her editor in chief worldwide for “Al Youm” is a former Al Arabiya TV executive.  She plucked the best journalists from Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic. 


“Al Youm’s” success is derived from delivering the news in a non-ideological and non-political context.  It doesn’t get bogged down in a contested choice of words, i.e., “occupied territories” versus disputed territories.  It includes human interest features, breaks new ground with a female anchor’s trip to Mecca, and covers entertainment, science, technology, and social development issues.  Mires explains that the staff follows the Alhurra code of ethics that emphasizes accuracy and impartiality. (See Appendix) What makes “Al Youm” different from Alhurra is that it’s an in-region television program.  Only one of its bureaus is in the United States (Washington, D.C.); otherwise, the other four bureaus are immersed in Middle East narratives.  This creates an intimate regional feel to the program.  It’s not a matter of having Springfield, Virginia, staff produce a program that covers the Middle East from afar.  The rundown of each day’s programs is coordinated among the worldwide staff in tandem across five countries. 

A point of great pride for Mires is that in its first 10 months of programming, not once has the live feed gone to black, quite an accomplishment for a live program with five bureaus.  Mires credits BBG board member Blaya, a veteran television journalist himself, for originating the concept of “Al Youm” in 2007.  Blaya is the former chairman of Univision and Telemundo, and served as Mires’ chairman at the Telemundo Network.  It took a couple of years to find the right producer to launch the program successfully.  Mires is keenly aware that had the launch of “Al Youm” been unsuccessful, it would have cast a dark cloud over Alhurra’s legitimacy.  This is why she insisted on directly interviewing and hiring the staff from the bottom to the top, going against the grain in television production by not using a headhunter organization.  After spending time with Mires in the Alhurra studio in Springfield, Virginia, it became clear that some of the “Al Youm” staff needed to be contacted about their perspectives on Alhurra and “Al Youm.” 

I followed up my interview with Mires on November 30, 2009, with a sit-down interview with Brian Conniff, president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) on December 15, 2009.  Conniff attributes Alhurra’s maturation from an initial general purpose channel to a fine-tuned focus on regional news and information channel.  It has two pillars: (1) news and information from the Middle East; and (2) news and information about America.  The focus is on values, principles, and policies.  “Al Youm” is an answer to the criticism that Alhurra was not connected enough to the Middle East region and the concomitant Arab Street.  “We have taken a deliberate approach to try to originate more programming out of the region.”[xxv]  Conniff emphasized “Al Youm’s” diversified approach to programming.  “There is a certain news fatigue for hard policy news.  We carry that…but we also try to get into more programming about people’s daily lives, the hardships, the joys, a lot of human interest.” “Al Youm” includes investigative journalism in its format, along with sports and entertainment.  It’s the kaleidoscope that makes up a person’s daily life.  One Al Youm story that received a lot of viewer reaction was organ harvesting in Cairo.  The story resonated not only with the viewers but also with the Egyptian government that has been trying to crack down on the illegal practice. Connecting with the region through “Al Youm” has been a big payoff for Alhurra. 

Alhurra has always been strong on the policy side through shows like “Inside Washington” or “Directions” that examine policies and perspectives with participants from D.C.-area think tanks.  More recently Alhurra has expanded its coverage into “Wall Street,” a timely show given the economic meltdown and growing viewer interest in economic and financial matters.  Conniff says that Alhurra is the only Arab-language network that focuses on the financial sector.  Al Jazeera is known almost exclusively for its politics and policy coverage.  Alhurra sees an opportunity in being a niche network that covers politics as well as many other sectors, including macroeconomics like the global financial downturn to microeconomics like jobs and employment. 

I asked Brian Conniff about the Obama effect related to Alhurra.  He confirmed that viewers are giving Alhurra a second look due to Obama’s election.  Whereas some viewers may have viewed Alhurra as an extension of the Bush doctrine or Bush administration, after November 4, 2008, there was a shift in mentality.  Not only was Alhurra still airing, but there was a new president and new team.  This signaled not only a change in leadership at the top of the American government, but also a change in programming at Alhurra.  If the U.S. government could change direction so dramatically in who it elected president, then perhaps Alhurra could change its content to a greater focus on the people of the Middle East.  “Al Youm” debuted six weeks after Obama’s swearing in.  Alhurra covered all of Obama’s major speeches in 2009, including the June 4, 2009, Cairo speech, the Fort Hood, Texas, speech on November 10, 2009, and the December 10, 2009, Nobel Prize acceptance speech.  The Cairo speech in particular has generated much discussion in the Middle East about whether or not President Obama will be able to deliver on his promise to change the relationship between the U.S. government and the Arab governments.  His election “has opened up a whole window that we never had before,” says Conniff.  Even the press in the Middle East region seems more receptive to Alhurra journalists.  The fact that Alhurra outlasted the Bush administration is a sign of Alhurra’s staying power in the region.    

Interviews with “Al Youm” Staff

In December 2009, the author submitted a series of general and specific questions to several reporters and anchors of “Al Youm.”  The questions were emailed to Deirdre Kline, director of communications for the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, who facilitated contact with staff in the Middle East.  The ten questions were sent with the expectation that staff would select which questions they would like to answer from the list.  The following replies are verbatim and “Al Youm” employee names and positions are identified.

Questions (General)

(1) What attracted you to work for “Al Youm?”

(2) What did you know about the U.S.-government funded program, Al Hurra, before working for the network?

(3) Who is your target audience for “Al Youm?”  

(4) What is different about “Al Youm” from other Middle-East based programs?

(5) How do you think journalism is changing in the Middle East?

Questions (More Specific)

(6) How is the perception of Al Hurra affecting the perception of “Al Youm” in the Middle East?

(7) How does the Middle East audience relate to your programming?

(8) How does the “Al- Jazeerah effect” impact your show and (or) channel?

(9) How can “Al Youm” give a voice to the people of the Middle East?

(10) With such high level of censorship of media in the Middle East, how is “Al Youm” able to cater to honest and credible reporting? 

Engy Anwar, “Al Youm” Dubai co-anchor

(1) Al Youm is a very unique program. It is the only program in the Arab world that broadcasts from five countries. I especially like that there is no advertising on the program. Other channels and programs can become beholden to the advertisers and you can see that on-air. We don’t have to worry about that with Al Youm.

I was a fan of Al Youm before I came to work for it. I even tuned in the first day to watch it. I liked the fact that it had a quick pace. It is very interesting and there are a variety of topics. I liked the idea that each day is different; you are not discussing the same issues every day. It requires a lot of research, but in the end it is very rewarding.

(2) I knew that Alhurra was funded by the U.S. Congress. When the network first launched I would hear that it was pro-Israeli and pro-American. However when I started to watch Al Youm and the channel, I saw that it was not biased at all.  Now that I work here, I can see first-hand that Al Youm and Alhurra show all sides of a topic or issue we are discussing.

(5) The level of journalism has definitely changed in the Middle East for the better. It has become more open. The number of media outlets is growing each year and so is the competition between them. Competition makes everyone better. Before, some governments would not tell the whole story, or not even report on some events if they did not like them. People had no access to news, except for their state-run media. Now with the number of media outlets growing all the time, governments can no longer hide information from the people.

(7) Since I had been on Egyptian television before coming to Al Youm, I would be stopped on the streets in Egypt. But now when I go out in Egypt they say they saw me on Al Youm. The reaction has been very positive, both by viewers and the press.

(9) We are all Arabs who work on the program. So, of course, we present the voice of the Middle East. We are always looking for a story or issue that will be of interest the audience. We report on stories that have not necessarily been heard before on satellite television. With three hours each day and our unique program style, we can address issues that a newscast cannot.

Eman Haddad, Jerusalem anchor for “Al Youm”[xxvi]

1. There were two main aspects that attracted me to Al Youm. The first thing is the variety that Al Youm offers its viewers, not only the different topics, but also different perspectives on these topics. You will talk about one subject and get the view from Jerusalem, Cairo, Dubai, Beirut and the U.S. When I first spoke to Fran, I thought this was a very unique concept.  I especially liked the idea that the program would originate from five countries.  The other thing that really sold me on Al Youm is that this would be the first time an Arab channel had a studio in Jerusalem, other stations have reporters in Jerusalem, but none of them have a studio.  Having a studio in Jerusalem allows us to have in-depth discussions that other channels cannot. If there is a big story out of Jerusalem, other channels may have a package or soundbite, but on Al Youm we can have the central people of that story on set for a comprehensive discussion, not just a soundbite.

2. Before I came to work at Alhurra, I knew that it was a news channel funded by the U.S. In the beginning I had some concerns, but when I heard about the idea of the show, I was immediately interested. So I started watching the channel for myself and saw that Alhurra was objective and that lessened my concerns. The objectivity, in addition to Al Youm having a studio in Jerusalem, made me want to work on Al Youm.

3.  The interesting thing about Al Youm is that it is a program the whole family can watch. We have something for each member of the family. The variety of the show is what attracts people to it. Most of the people who I talk to about the program will comment on the fact that it is something the whole family can watch together and there are not a lot of programs out there like that.

4.  What makes Al Youm unique is that you get the perspective from where the story is happening. There is not just one voice. When you think about a typical newscast, it is one person from one location talking about the entire region. With Al Youm, if there is an Israeli or Palestinian story, it will be reported from Jerusalem. If it is a story from the Gulf, you will hear about it from Dubai. If an event is happening in the Levant, our Beirut bureau will talk about it and Cairo covers everything from North Africa. It is important that people are telling their own stories.

5.  I think journalism in the region still has a long way to go. However, with the advent of satellite television and the Internet there is much more competition. Especially with the anonymity of the Internet, people are feeling free to talk about topics that are sensitive in the region such as freedom of expression, homosexuality and the rights of women.  These are things that would never have been mentioned 10 years ago. Also with more media outlets, more people have a place to express their opinions, so there are many more voices being heard than ever before.

Eman Haddad added the following observation specific to stories covered by the Jerusalem bureau:

Since we have a studio in Jerusalem we have the unique opportunity to bring Palestinian and Israeli guests together. Other stations might have a Palestinian and an Israeli on the same program via satellite, but on Al Youm, they are sitting right next to one another on the same set. This is not something you often see on Arab television.  Another story that we did that was unusual had to do with domestic violence. Al Youm has done several stories on domestic violence, but one day we profiled a center that tries to rehabilitate men who have beaten women, to get them to stop the abuse. I interviewed one of the men who had gone to the center. He sat on the set and cried, telling me and our audience how sorry he was for what he had done. It was something you would not see on other channels.

Badiaa Samir, “Al Youm” Senior Producer in Cairo

Several points attracted me such as:

(1a) Al Youm is the first talk show in the Middle East of its kind to broadcast from five countries and three continents daily. This idea is very attractive for any journalist, since it gives accessibility to cover all news that is important to the Arab viewers worldwide. Arabs in the Middle East media got used to viewing satellite windows from limited places; not news from 3 continents.

b) Working in a daily talk show is a challenge for any journalist as it requires constant and accurate follow up for most of the current news and events that take place in the countries that each bureau covers. Thus it widens the horizon of work by covering events that take place in Libya, Sudan and the whole of North Africa. Al Youm has the facilities to do this mission objectively.  This empowers us to take the viewer out of localization and to narrow the gap between the East and the West.

c) Being a member of a station that is diversified and full of employees of different nationalities, ideologies and belongings; interacting with them daily; enriches the horizon of thinking of any journalist and is even a source of inspiration that I do believe is highly reflected in our coverage and tackling different topics. Never forget that the Alhurra name in Egypt is synonymous of prestige and pride. People think very highly of it. Even if they dislike it; most admit it’s very professional.

d) There is an opportunity for in-depth discussion on several suggested topics with Executive Producer Fran Mires along with the other journalists working in the show; an opportunity that I personally didn’t witness in any other Arabic stations.


(2) Most of the people in Egypt were talking about the high technical aspects of the channel and the famous horses promotion of Alhurra.  I knew that it is a channel that is funded by the Congress but overseen by the BBG to ensure fair journalistic coverage; a channel that aims to narrow the gap between the East and the West.

(3) Targeted audience for Al Youm show is Arab adults (both women and men) from different political and social and educational stratus.  Since the show is broadcast from five different countries, it gives us a wide range of viewership as people from different countries are watching

(4) The points of difference are:

a- Al Youm is a totally pan-Arab show, while most of the Middle East based programs are local and do not cover as widely as Al Youm does.

b- Most of the Arabic talk shows are based on spotlighting the disputes and the differences between opinions in a way that is not journalistically sound. They focus on getting the guests to quarrel on air.

 While Al Youm tries to show the audience the in-depth perspective without giving the door for personal benefits to any parties.

c- Al Youm has the accessibility to show not only the East but also to introduce to the Arabic viewer to the United States of America; how the Americans think and how they live.

d- The pace of the program is the first of its kind in the Middle East. The Arab viewer isn’t accustomed for watching an interview that’s duration doesn’t exceed 5 minutes. They use[d] to complain about the talking heads that are shown in other networks, but Al Youm is keen to keep the viewer interested, even in the hard topics like politics.

e- Al Youm focuses the spotlight on the successful stories, new inventions, forgotten heroes or even small projects that  open a door of hope to people. Al Youm is very keen to look to the full part of the glass not just to focus on the empty part.

f- Presenting a magazine show like Al Youm that covers politics, current affairs, social issues, health and entertainment makes Al Youm different.

(5) Journalism is changing a lot in the Middle East. The call for democracy is impacting print journalism as the authority is giving more licenses for opposition newspapers to operate, the same as the permission of live talk shows; while this was considered impossible in the past. But the question is how this journalism is affecting the masses? Of course it has a positive and negative impact.  More space is given especially to talk shows that are aired from private networks but this ceiling of freedom is much bigger. It’s remarkable that some are using this freedom to cover stories in an extremely biased way.

(6) Al Youm is a program that is aired in Alhurra Channel, thus, they’re related.

People in the beginning, since the inauguration of the channel, were astonished about the high level of technology provided by the channel and Al Youm is a continuation in this point.  Alhurra is classified as a News Channel and Al Youm for the first time is presenting a mixture of politics, social, economic, health and entertainment segments; all in one meal. I believe that Al Youm’s objective way of covering stories meets Alhurra standards. Al Youm is a continuation of Alhurra objectives.

(7) Alhurra is a credible source of information.

(8) As the audience became more aware of the agenda of Al Jazeera and I think that this has a positive impact on Alhurra.

(9) Al Youm is like a mirror that reflects exactly how things exist. You can see this through Al Youm’s cameras sniffing the unspoken stories to reveal the truth without any personal benefit or seeking a political stand.

As a channel that is funded by the Congress and overseen by the BBG, we enjoy the fact that we don’t have any person dictating us what to cover and what to say. We have a professional team that guides us to ensure attaining objectivity and transparency in covering not more.

We succeeded to cover stories that other channels are asking us about its sources and how to reach it.  Al Youm is gaining as a credible show that covers everything and thus our sources became eager to inform us about their events or stories due to their trust of our balanced coverage.

We are keen to touch the layman pulse; covering stories from the ground not just judging from above and the audience is smart.

10) I believe that high level of censorship doesn’t curtail honest reporting; it can hinder the ability of coverage but the honesty is a methodology that journalists should follow according to the journalistic ethics. As mentioned above, nowadays journalism is witnessing a wide range of freedom and the puzzle became not “having the permission to cover” but became how you as a journalist are honest in your reporting. Sticking to journalism rules in answering the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where and why) and separating your beliefs in your coverage and choosing extremely precise and accurate wording is the key to success; in addition to maintaining fairness in visuals, editing, selecting appropriate guests to the tackled topics.


Amr Khalil, “Al Youm’s” Cairo anchor

(1) The name of Alhurra was the first to attract me of course. As a presenter, I wanted to reach high levels of professionalism and work experience. Where can you do that better that “free one”?

(2) Of course once Alhurra announced its intention to launch Al Youm, the news spread among the media production community; not only in Egypt but in most of the Arab world countries as well. I knew of Alhurra before being a member of Al Youm family, I knew it was a U.S-funded channel but not U.S government directed or controlled. I also knew that was not created to express the U.S.’s point of view, so it is really “Hurra” or “Free”.

(4) In our program we don’t play on the audience’s emotions as [a] number of other programs in the region do. Al Youm is the first program in our region to have such great scale of diversity, both in coverage and topics since we originate from five countries in three continents.  The show is unique as it moves through the different political, economic, cultural, sports, art and entertainment issues.

(5) I think during the last 10 years the media is freer to discuss what were considered in the past “Red line issues.” On the other hand this development was accompanied by a lack of objectivity in many cases.

(6) Of course both Alhurra and Al Youm have the same vision regarding the issues in the Middle East. We report on them, without advocating one side or another of a topic. Objectivity is our goal and the truth, whatever it may be, regardless if it suits one group or another.

(7) I think the reaction has been very good, because we are providing the audience something new and different.

(10) The margin of freedom now is not comparable to the last decade. Now the media has the ability to discuss sensitive issues more freely in many cases. As for Al Youm we report the truth, we cover all issues without being a part of the story, which gives us a great deal of credibility.


I came to this case study project with a history of criticism of Alhurra.  I had published numerous essays about U.S. propaganda and a “propaganda network” like Alhurra.  Critical op-eds are often narrowcasting perspectives on place and people.  This time I approached the international broadcasting network with that same critical mind but with a landscape perspective.  I was given full access to hearing out the perspective of those who work at Alhurra.  I conclude that there were two factors involved in Alhurra’s maturation as an international broadcaster: (1) the timely election of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in November 2008; and (2) the rolling out of Alhurra’s flagship primetime program “Al Youm” in March 2009.  Without these two factors in place, Alhurra would not be in the position now of expanding its brand, nor would it have had the institutional credibility to attract so many popular Arab and Muslim journalists in the Middle East.  There will always be critics in place to denounce the existence of Alhurra.  Some of the criticism is legitimate, including an ongoing question of whether or not it’s better for the U.S. government to fund independent (non-governmental) media in the Middle East as opposed to operating its own network.  For now, a U.S.-government operated network called Alhurra is in place and with the success of “Al Youm,” its future is looking brighter.  President Obama’s June 2009 speech to the Middle East people was well received, and his continued popularity in the region should bode well for “Al Youm” as it continues to grow its audience. 





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[i] The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) encompasses all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) of Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television.

As reported on the BBG website, “BBG broadcasters distribute programming in 60 languages to an estimated weekly audience of 175 million people via radio, TV, the Internet and other new media. The BBG works to serve as an example of a free and professional press, reaching a worldwide audience with news, information, and relevant discussions.”  See “About the Agency” at


[iii] Al Jazeera’s Global Gamble: A PEJ Interview,” Project for Excellence in Journalism, August 22, 2006.

[iv] President George W. Bush, Transcript of the State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

[v] Ambinder, Marc. “How Al Jazeera Outlasted Donald Rumsfeld,” The Atlantic.  December 11, 2009.

[vi] The BBG mission is legislatively supported by the U.S. International Broadcasting Act of 1994 and the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998.

[vii] “Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV: Performance Update,” Broadcasting Board of Governors, October 27, 2009.  Survey research is done by ACNielsen and D3 Systems (for Iraq and Syria only) through the BBG’s global research program independently managed by Washington, D.C.-based research firm InterMedia.  Survey findings are based predominantly on face-to-face interviews of adults (aged 15+), with some findings (e.g., Syria) the result of telephone surveys.  

[viii] Pattiz, Norman. “Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV:  Opening Channels of Mass Communication in the Middle East,” Chapter 6 in William A. Rugh, ed., Engaging the Arab & Islamic Worlds through Public Diplomacy. Washington, D.C.: Public Diplomacy Council, 2004, p. 71.

[ix] Berenger, Ralph D. “Al Jazeera: In Pursuit of ‘Contextual Objectivity,’” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 13, Spring 2005.

[x] Miles, Hugh. Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West. Chapter Two: Making a Splash in the Arab World: 37-67. New York: Grove Press, 2005.

[xi] York, Anthony. “Propaganda or Journalism?” Salon. April 21, 2003.

[xii] Author interview with Brian Conniff, Alhurra Television Headquarters, Springfield, Virginia, March 2009. 

[xiii] Pattiz, Norman. “Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV: Opening Channels of Mass Communication in the Middle East,” Chapter 6 in William A. Rugh, ed., Engaging the Arab & Islamic Worlds through Public Diplomacy. Washington, D.C.: Public Diplomacy Council, 2004, p. 70.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 71.

[xv] Senator Roger F. Wicker (R-MS), Hearing of the International Operations and Organization Subcommittee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 15, 2009. 

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Dafna Linzer, “Alhurra Bleeding Viewers, Poll Finds, But Spending is Up,” ProPublica, May 29, 2009. 

[xviii] An Evaluation of Alhurra Television Programming Conducted for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, July 31, 2008. 

[xix] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[xx] Alhurra Television Focus Group Research Project: Critique of Editorial Content in order to Enhance News Judgment and Build Journalistic Excellence.  Report on research focus groups in Columbia, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., on the editorial quality of Alhurra Television news programming. Research conducted by Kent S. Collins, chairman, Radio-Television Journalism Faculty, Missouri School of Journalism

University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, October 5, 2008, Executive Summary.

[xxi] The phrase “elements of journalism” is in reference to the Kovach and Rosenstiel book, The Elements of Journalism.  These elements include the following: (1) Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth; (2) Its loyalty is to the citizens; (3) Its discipline is that of verification; (4) Journalism must be independent from sources; (5) It must serve—at times—as a watchdog; (6) Journalism should serve as a public forum for ideas and criticism; (7) It must be relevant and interesting (i.e., incorporate best practices of storytelling); and (8) Journalism must be comprehensive and proportional.

[xxii] Ibid. 

[xxiii] Arabian Woman review of “Al Youm” (no date), p. 21. 

[xxiv] Author interview with executive producer, Springfield, Virginia, November 30, 2009. 

[xxv] Author interview with Brian Conniff, Springfield, Virginia, December 15, 2009. 

[xxvi] In the reply, “Fran” refers to executive producer of “Al Youm,” Fran Mires. 



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